Friday 20 April 2012

Rainy Day Lighting Problems and Solutions for Artists

I thought of writing this post when I woke up this morning to an overcast day. It put a bit of a dampener (he he, pun intended) on my plans to go drawing in the Botanical Gardens. It’s not just the rain or wind that can affect our plans as artists, but also the change in light conditions – even for those artists who work entirely indoors. The light changes between sunny and rainy or overcast days can be dramatic and can affect the way we see our subjects' tones, colours and features, let alone how well we see the artwork we are creating.

The light on overcast days is very different to that found on sunny days. It is glaring and  more diffuse. Ambient light is reflected off a layer of low-lying clouds and direct light is diffused through the same cloud layer. I often notice on overcast days that I can’t do my usual trick of looking out the window as I work on my computer as it’s just so bright. 

This change in light conditions can have a huge impact on your work if you use natural light to illuminate or enhance your work, particularly if you are working on an artwork over a few days. Not only is it a different type of light, but because it is glaring and more diffuse, the dark tones and shadows that fall on your subject won’t be as strong. Any painting or drawing done on these days runs the risk of looking a little flatter without this depth of tone.

The easiest way to overcome this is to (lightly) cover your windows from the glare and place a bright light, such as a strong, adjustable desk lamp in front of those windows in the direction the sunlight usually comes from. Adjust the lamp’s position (or add more lamps) until your subject matches the work you have already laid down.

Dark rainy or stormy days have a different problem entirely. While lights and lamps will give off the same light as they would on a sunny day, the background light is reduced.Without this ambient light enhancing the mid and light tones, and with the dark tones the same or darker, the contrast, (the difference between light and dark), is reduced. Reduced contrast on the subject can mean that the artwork looks flat.

Some still life artists only work with covered windows or at night to avoid being at the mercy of changes in light. If cutting down the light in the room doesn’t suit your work pattern or living arrangements, your best option is to enhance the level of ambient light in the room.

You have probably noticed how overhead lights on dark days don't seem to help unless it's very dark, as the light is only from one direction and doesn't fill the surrounding area with light. So, rather than having one or two overhanging lights, a series of smaller lights regularly spaced will create a good replacement for sunnier days. The next best solution is to surround the space with bright lights, directed away from the subject. Bouncing lights off surrounding walls, particularly white walls, works a similar way to natural light within an interior. If you have a very large space to light up, you may like to try both techniques together.

Remember though that natural light is warm light. It is naturally more yellow or orange, whereas many electric lights, (most infamously fluorescents), are pure white or blue-toned. You've probably noticed the difference in how you look under a fluorescent (unflattering) light compared to a more golden (flattering) light, and the change on your subjects is the same. While you do want a bright light - that is, a strong light with high wattage - you need to look for yellow-toned or warm-toned lightbulbs or light filters.

We'll be adding a tutorial on lighting rigs soon if you want to check it out at I aim to enlist the assistance of our local animator to give us tips so it should be fairly indepth. We should be up and running within a few weeks.

10 Things for Artists to do on a Rainy day

There are a lot of things to do inside during rainy or overcast weather, even for the most hardened plein air artist! These tips also work well when you're experiencing 'artist's block'. They'll keep moving you ahead or give you the rest you need to come back refreshed...

1.    Bright, overcast (not rainy) days are the perfect days to take photographs of your work. Set up a dry, clean place outside, (or inside if you don’t want to risk the raindrops), such as an easel or a white backdrop. Unlike flash photography, you don’t need to take the photograph on an angle, even for framed work under glass. The bright, diffuse light of an overcast day is perfect for illuminating your artwork for photos.

2.    Take the opportunity to clean up your art supplies – sharpen those pencils, give your brushes a wash (and haircut if you use oils), clean your pastels or clear up your work space. This is not time wasted – the next sunny day you’ll really appreciate having everything clean and ready to go.

3.    Spend the time solving any long-standing difficulties you have. Are there certain things that you find difficult to draw or paint, such as knees, noses, shiny fabric etc? Find artwork from an artist who is good at those things and copy what they do. It doesn’t have to be in the same medium – classical statues are one of the best ways to study these difficult areas, even from a photograph. You’ll be amazed how much you can learn by seeing how another artist has dealt with the same issue.

4.    Sharpen up on the basics, like shading the basic shapes or tonal paintings. Most artists need to review these from time to time to ‘keep their eye in', and you’ll find that as you gain experience in art, the exercises which you may have found boring as an early student become more and more relevant. Tone, and how to effectively create tone and form, are the most common problems that both students and professional artists struggle with. Many don't even see that this is the aspect of their work that needs improving.

5. Start, sort or add to your reference material collection. For example, if you paint flowers, spend the day collecting pictures of flowers either to work directly from or to get ideas from. Sort and file them into categories to make them easier to find. Otherwise you can paste them into a scrapbook or pin them onto a board to inspire you!

6. Do something else creative that isn't related to your art. Often artists think that because their job is creative, they don't need another creative outlet. But if art is your income or you are training for it to be, then it is your work. You still need another hobby that doesn't have any stress or obligation attached to it. A hobby will also re-energise you ready to paint, draw or scuplt again.

7. Draw or paint your friends and family. So often we forget to draw those close to us. This can really connect you to those you love and they usually enjoy sharing something that it such a big part of you. And whatever you create will be a wonderful momento for years to come.

8. Spend the day drawing from memory or imagination. This can really re-energise your art. Let your mind and pencil wander...

9. Look up artists working in a similar style or on a similar subject matter to yourself. Collect pictures of their work and/ or sketch their work and put both together into a scrapbook of ideas and inspiration. Sometimes these can become beautiful visual diaries that you can keep or give to those close to you.

10. Create a mandala painting or a sand meditation painting to bring peace and tranquility to your inner artist.